By the end of the short-lived Klondike and Alaskan Gold Rushes of the late 1890s, the far northwest of the North American continent had been changed irrevocably.
Over 100,000 prospectors had swarmed like a plague of locusts over the Yukon Territory and Alaska, bringing everything from pack animals to industrial river dredging machinery with them.
Entire virgin forests were clear-felled along rivers to make boats for transporting equipment. More timber went to building shanty towns, boardwalks, and sluices.
The rest was firewood.
Fish, birds, and other wildlife was exterminated along entire river systems – rivers, streams, and creeks which had been muddied and polluted by industrialised mining, while thousands upon thousands of other wild animals were shot-out or trapped-out to feed miners and other gold rush opportunists. Tailors, blacksmiths, guides, carpenters, cooks, saloon-keepers, criminals, pimps, and of course, prostitutes…
By the time most of the prospectors had upped-sticks and left for warmer climes after the gold rush, local tribes such as the Han, Tagish, Tutchone, and Tlingit had been left reeling – from disease, the introduction of alcohol into their communities, and worst of all, the breakdown of old trade networks and the near extermination of much wildlife in many areas – wildlife which had traditionally sustained them for centuries, for millennia.
Added to this catastrophe was the 19th century Pacific whaling industry, which did for indigenous coastal dwellers what gold miners had done to the northwestern interior.
Enter a Coast Guard captain from Georgia named Michael Healy – runaway son of a slaveholding Irishman from County Roscommon and his “consort” Mary Eliza Clark – an enslaved woman who was eventually freed.
Healy, a man beset by his own demons and no stranger to the bottle, nonetheless saw the hungry and impoverished plight of the Alaskan Inuit, and being a fundamentally decent man, determined to help them in some way.
Long story short, having seen the reindeer herders of Siberia on his many travels aboard ship, Michael Healy suggested to Dr. Sheldon Jackson, the Commissioner of Education in Alaska and a Presbyterian minister, that the Coast Guard might replenish devastated wildlife stocks by transporting entire herds of Siberian reindeer to Alaska by sea.
The Inuit might be taught to become self-sufficient herdsmen rather than hunters, the reasoning went.
Jackson bought into the idea, and funds for the project were raised through private and government sources.
The first reindeer arrived, with Siberian herdsmen brought to Alaska as instructors. These Siberians soon departed due to cultural differences with the Inuit.
And so began one of the strangest episodes of immigration in American history.
Families and groups of Sámi people from Scandinavia (the people formerly known as “Laplanders”), reindeer experts par excellence, were brought to Alaska instead.
This time all parties got on well, the project took proper root, and the Alaska Reindeer Service was born.
Perhaps the natural amity between Sámi and Inuit should surprise no one, as the Sámi, just like indigenous Americans, had experienced ethnic discrimination and cultural genocide in their rightful and ancient homelands.
The attitude of Siberian reindeer to all of this remains unclear…
#MichaelHealy #AlaskaHistory #MixedEthnic #Inuit #Saami #reindeer